Knook #24: Froth Technologies
New Zealand’s craft beer scene gets a lot of attention. We’re renowned globally for three of the four key ingredients in beer - great hops, great malts and great water quality.
But as Simon Cooke and Ryan Carville found, yeast was the missing ingredient.
Says Ryan, “Yeast has to be air freighted, in a temperature-controlled environment - that’s expensive, adds to a brewery’s carbon footprint and impacts their supply chain resilience - which is quite important given recent events.”
So Simon and Ryan started Froth Technologies, to provide New Zealand’s breweries with a local source of yeast, producing industry standard yeast strains grown right here and easily distributed. But they’re also on a mission to domesticate and produce wild yeast strains unique to New Zealand.
I asked how they both got into the brewing scene, and how that turned into producing yeast.
“We’ve been friends since high school, and together we’ve had over ten years in the industry - I started with home brewing, working in bars and at festivals and then in breweries,” says Simon.
“I owned Kakariki, a contract brewing company, basically developing beer recipes, upscaling them in breweries, and selling the beer to bars around NZ. Ryan was at Eagle Brewing in Christchurch, looking after the brewing and I was developing my recipes and we thought we should put our heads together to work on something for ourselves. We then started doing some market research into starting a brewery, but we wanted it to be really sustainable. Ingredients obviously play a big part in the sustainability of a business, and when I realised that there was no local option when it came to yeast, it was a eureka moment.
“We realised that by pursuing yeast brewing, we can make the most of relationships we’ve built in the industry, by supplying to them and helping the industry we love so much as a whole.”
As for Ryan, “I’ve had many career pathways, but most of my career revolved around flavour - I was doing lots of homebrewing, I did some time as a baker, and then some project management experience. As Simon said, I worked at Eagle Brewing down in Christchurch and then got a job at Garage Project’s Wild Workshop - which was highly nerdy, and this nice meeting point of science and art. While I was there, we started building Froth Tech as a side hustle, until we got to a point last year that I realised I needed to commit to this fulltime to make this happen.”
I asked Ryan and Simon to take me through the yeast growing process.
“Most breweries use domesticated yeasts, and some will play with more unpredictable wild yeasts. Yeast is all around us, normally drawn to sugars in the natural environment. Early brewers used to brew beer in open-top fermenters which wild yeasts would naturally settle in and inoculate the brew. By reusing the settled yeast from the bottom of the tank, over time, yeast as an organism has become domesticated in this setting. These days, modern yeast labs have identified those yeast strains which have since been preserved and used by brewers, so you can buy it off the shelf,” says Simon.
“Our initial offering is to localise access to those domesticated yeast strains for our New Zealand brewing industry, so we’re currently growing the strains of yeast that brewers are used to, and are part of their recipes. We can brew those stains in liquid form and then distribute from there.”
“But we’ve also got an R+D project going to find New Zealand wild yeast strains. We’ve been out to remote locations around Aotearoa to forage small samples of native plants, flowers and soils with the hope that wild yeasts are present. We’re bringing those samples back to the lab we’re collaborating with, banking them and then running the microbes through a series of tests. We need to make sure the yeasts can perform in a beer-like environment: checking they are tolerant to alcohol, that they can handle a low pH and they can ferment malt sugars. And finally we have to make sure they taste good, so your brew doesn’t smell or taste like gym socks,” Ryan laughs.
“We’re developing that process from the ground up - we’re testing it and working out the kinks through these fermentation experiments.The goal for us is to discover yeast strains that are uniquely Kiwi, which empower brewers to make beers that are uniquely Kiwi.When you think about hefeweizen or lambic as a beer, they’re centuries old and the flavour is very informed by the yeast from the province they come from. This geo-indicative flavour signature is called ‘terroir’.We want to unlock the flavours of Aotearoa, by finding these wild yeasts, and getting them to NZ breweries to brew unique beers that showcase that local terroir.People understand the flavour profiles of malts and hops.We want to invite the same education around yeast.”
I asked Ryan and Simon what challenges they’ve faced in starting the business.
“The biggest thing is really that no one is doing this here, so while we have received great support from the industry, we’ve also had to figure a lot of things out on our own. If were starting a brewery, we could ask an established brewer what their setup is like, what tanks they use, any advice they have, what things to avoid,” says Ryan. “Neither of us had studied sciences at university, so we’re working through trial and error, and lots of online research. It’s highly rewarding but can be tough work.
“We also had the initial challenges in the early days of doing this alongside a day job. We’d be at our kitchen site brewing yeast at 6pm after a full day of work. One night, we finished at 4am, found that the car battery was flat, got the car started after a bit, got home for a quick nap and went back to work at 8am,” Ryan laughs.
Says Simon, “Getting started was really tough in the early days - it took us time to build credibility as a business. There was a real longevity needed to push through the barriers to receive grants etc. We’ve found things get easier once you’ve proven your business is more than just an idea.
“We’ve run this start-up lean while we proved our product was viable and along the way we’ve received some match funding from the Zero Carbon challenge, and some R+D funding from Callaghan Innovation. We’ve also had some great support from the Regional Business Partners Network through their capability vouchers. So along the way it’s become easier.
“I know a lot of founders can start doubting themselves in the early days - especially when you’re not offered support immediately. We really believe in the business - early on we had that optimism-but-uncertainty mix for sure. But it’s not just a good idea, we’ve got a good business model behind it, validated by expert advisors and mentors. We spent lots of time validating the idea and doing our market research, through interviewing brewers - by the time we were done, we’d surveyed about 10 percent of the brewing industry. We just kept crunching the numbers and making sure it made sense.”
I asked the guys what advice they’d give to others looking to start a business.
Says Ryan, “We can’t overstate the importance of market research. We spoke to brewers from all over the country, found out what they wanted, while generating excitement and trust at the same time. We built our minimum viable product (MVP) in a small kitchen and did 6 batches of yeast to give to breweries so they could give us feedback on what worked. It helped confirm we were on the right track and that’s been invaluable for us.”
“We also needed to ensure the breweries would be paying for our yeast at a price that’s justifiable to our business model. That put us in a safer position to invest in the new facility.”
“If you’re trying to find an idea to get started on, start an ideas club with some friends. That can be a great place to start for finding something to work on that has legs,” says Simon.
“Ask yourself, ‘What’s a business that relates to my passion?’ If you want to test building something from nothing, test it out at a startup weekend. Building out a business model - they can be great ways to learn and build your chops. And even if you’re not the ideas person, leaders and entrepreneurs need teams around them.”
I ask Simon and Ryan what’s next for Froth Technologies.
“Well we’ve just moved into our new yeast propagation facility at the start of the year,” says Ryan. “We’re now beginning production and testing variables to produce brew quality yeast.
“There’s also some potential for exporting our wild strains in the future but we’re really conscious about our carbon footprint so we’d be looking at exporting the IP and contract manufacturing.”
“I’m really interested in other things that are directly aligned with fermentation,” says Simon.
“Yeast is essentially a tiny factory - we can alter the genetic instructions within that factory and change what it could do. There’s huge potential for growing animal proteins with yeast so that might be where we look to expand in the future. I really believe we’re on the cusp of a bio revolution, using the tools that nature has given us, and it’s exciting to be building this business in that space.”
Follow the Froth Tech journey on socials or visit: https://www.frothtech.co.nz/